Oh, Gotham, what have you done? I have to admit, I was afraid of this. A Joker backstory was always going to be a risky move. But the very least the show could have done is take an actual risk with it. Instead, last night’s episode served up one of the most hackneyed serial killer clichés of all time: mommy issues. All the side-eyes ever, amirite?

Our latest installment opens with Gordon and Lee taking a night off to go to the circus. When a fight erupts in the middle of the performance, Jim of course has to be the good upstanding cop about it. This is how the real case gets underway – the dead body of a snake charmer is discovered amidst the petty circus feud, and Gordon becomes tasked with catching the killer.

Unfortunately, due to the hyped previewing of the Joker’s debut, the episode carried with it absolutely no mystery or suspense whatsoever. However, this was not an inevitability; they could have made the crime a red herring committed by somebody else, a side-affair to the Joker’s actual proclivities.

But nope, he killed his mother because she was a “nagging whore.” Has there ever been a more cliché reason for a man to kill a woman? Seriously, Gotham, the whole point of the Joker is that he does not commit his evil acts for commonplace reasons or with ‘rational’ ends in mind.  To make this his origin story is such an enormous disappointment, especially when a character like this offers so many other fanciful, interesting, novel possibilities. You could have had FUN with this. Instead you went the Hitchcock route and now we’re stuck with deja vu all over again. Way to drop the ball big time.

Admittedly, Monaghan does a superb job with the material. His transition from a façade of normal to utter psychopath in the episode’s climactic scene is everything one could ask for from anyone who isn’t Heath Ledger. I had every faith he was talented enough to get this right, and he did not in the least bit disappoint. The problem, fundamentally, was with the writing, not the way it was brought to life. Granted, they have not unilaterally confirmed Jerome is the Joker, only very strongly implied it; so maybe the show will end up surprising us later on down the road, after all. But I doubt it.

Leaving the A-plot alone for a moment, Barbara returns to her apartment to find Ivy and Kat still camping out there. She does not appear particularly fussed that two strange street orphans are just kicking it in her penthouse, and strangely enough, I completely bought her nonchalance about the whole thing. She seems like a woman who’s just rolling with life as it comes at her these days. I honestly hope this becomes a permanent arrangement. Individually, these character have not been well integrated into the larger Gotham plot, but as a collective, they make for an interesting triad who could definitely hold their own as a site of interesting narrative possibilities. I want to watch their bond grow and see how it feeds into furthering the story as a whole.

Fish Mooney also continues her rise from the ashes back into the halls of power. After discovering she and her fellow captives are an involuntary organ farm, she finagles a meeting with the big cheese by staging a coordinated rebellion that provides her with just the right leverage. Jada Pinkett-Smith is once more given the chance to shine here as her character oozes charism and charm to win over her fellow prisoners, negotiate with the intermediary and arrange a face-to-face with the boss, who no doubt will be revealed next week. In lesser hands it would all seem laughably grandiose and improbable, but Pinkett-Smith manages to mix in just enough realism with her camp to carry the whole thing off with finesse.

Gordon and Lee’s relationship develops quite a bit in relation to the case, and is arguably the actual crux of the episode. When a blind fortune-teller from the carnival offers up a message from the dead victim early on, Gordon’s skepticism is challenged by Lee’s openness to things beyond rational science. They pursue the case together, often disagreeing, but always managing to do so in a productive way. Ultimately it is revealed Jim is right, and the message was actually a deliberate plant by the ‘psychic’, who is also Jerome’s unacknowledged father. Turns out he was trying to protect his murderous offspring with a strategized cover-up. Indeed, the reveal of Jerome’s paterinity in the final interrogation is part of what seems to push him over the edge into a confession of his vendetta against his mother and his sociopathic tendencies.

Ultimately, the problem with Gotham giving the Joker a backstory is not so much the fact that it ‘violates’ the pre-established canon. Nor is it even the fact that any particular choice of portrayal was always going to be some degree of let-down (an inevitable problem in revealing the man behind the curtain). It is the fact that it robs the Joker of what he was designed to represent: the fundamental inexplicability of some things. The Joker is supposed to embody the idea that while much evil in this world is ‘explicable’ and ‘rational,’ and therefore can be analyzed, predicted and preempted, sometimes people do horrible things for no good reason at all. He is an agent of chaos, an entity beyond profiling, premeditation or rationalization. Granted, he could still become that agent of chaos, even with such relatively banal origins (for a serial-killer). But he unequivocally loses much of his uniqueness and even mystique as a villain when it all comes down to mommy issues, in the end.

Guess what, Hollywood – women are not always the reason some men are evil or crazy. Radical thought. You should try it some time.

Quotables

Lee Thompkins: Plenty of things in the world can’t be explained by rational science.
Jim Gordon: People who enjoy folk dancing, for instance.